As has already been mentioned on this blog a couple months ago, Brand New is my favorite band of all time. The most often quoted lyric from the band comes from a song titled “Jesus Christ,” and it is a song in which the writer wrestles with his faith in the midst of his current human condition. At one point in the song the author quips with angst, “So what did you do those three days you were dead because this problem’s gonna last more than the weekend.” Let’s set aside emo angst for a moment and just focus on the theological question being asked by a doubting man… So, what did Jesus do during the time between his death on the cross and his resurrection on Sunday morning?
A lot of people have gotten mixed up in some weird theology upon answering this question, but I have found an article from Wayne Grudem written in 2017 that is very helpful for answering this question. Grudem is President and Professor of Systematic theology at Phoenix Seminary, and in the article he explores the quote from the Apostles Creed which reads, “was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.” What is the issue in the statement? Well, the statement that Jesus descended into hell does not come from the Bible, so what do we make of this? Grudem suggests this phrase has been understood in three different ways: some believe Christ suffered the pains of hell while on the cross (Calvin), some have said Christ continued on in the state of death until his resurrection– Westminster Catechism reads “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.”; and others have taken it that Jesus really did descend into hell after dying on the cross.
So Grudem explores the 5 passages used to support the view that Jesus really did descend into hell following his death on the cross…
Acts 2:27: Peter is preaching at Pentecost and he quotes Psalm 16:10, “Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead nor will you let your faithful one see decay.” Grudem points out this verse does not necessarily mean Jesus entered hell, but it does show Christ’s body did not decay unlike David who “died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.”
Romans 10:6-7: Two rhetorical questions are used here from OT quotations from Deut. 30:13, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss? (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” Grudem comments here, “But this passage hardly teaches that Christ descended into hell. The point of the passage is that Paul is telling people not to ask these questions, because Christ is not far away- he is near- and faith in him is as near as confessing with our mouth and believing in our heart.”
Ephesians 4:8-9: Paul writes, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?'” These verses could just as easily and properly be interpreted to mean Jesus descended in the Incarnation when God took on flesh and dwelt among humanity. The NIV even translates this as “he descended to the lower, earthly regions…” So, Christ who ascended to heaven is the same one who descended to earth at his incarnation, so this verse is not referring to after Jesus’ death but at Jesus’ birth.
1 Peter 3:18-20: These verses say, “He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits– to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” I cannot give as much time and attention to this passage as Grudem does in his work, but suffice it to say there is no way this verse can be meaning that Jesus offered salvation to a group of people in hell who were already damned… We know there is no opportunity for repentance after death (Heb. 10:26-27). So, some others have recognized this difficulty in such an interpretation of the passage and have said Jesus preached in hell to fallen angels (demons) rather than to redeemable souls. I do not have time for a theological treatise on this sort of interpretation, but I will just clearly state that this view has more than a handful of complications and I don’t buy it. So, others interpret this passage to mean that Christ “after his death, went and proclaimed release to OT believers, who had been unable to enter heaven until the completion of Christ’s redemptive work (Grudem).” But, once again we would be wise to notice that the people Christ preached to in 1 Peter 3 18-20 were those who were formerly disobedient during the days of Noah. Plus, many passages in Scripture show that OT believers did actually enter into the presence of God immediately following death, because of their faith in the coming Messiah of God.
So, Grudem offers a better (IMO) interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20. He saysthe most satisfactory explanation of 1 Peter comes from a saint of long ago, Augustine. “The passage refers not to something Christ did between his death and resurrection, but to what he did ‘in the spiritual realm of existence (or through the Spirit) at the time of Noah. When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in spirit’ was preaching through Noah to the hostile unbelievers around him.” This makes perfect sense in the context of 1 Peter as Peter wrote to the “elect exiles” who were set apart from the rest of society. Noah was quite literally selected for the sake of not only exile, but total exclusion of the rest of the society in his time. I think Augustine’s explanation is the most straightforward and in context interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20.
1 peter 4:6: The final of the 5 passages used to support the idea Jesus really did descend into heaven following his death on the cross is another one in 1 Peter. It reads, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” So, does this verse tell of Jesus going into hell and preaching the Gospel? Hebrews 9:27 reads, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” So, if Jesus preached the gospel in hell and the dead were somehow given a second chance then what does this say of Hebrews 9:27? A closer reading of 1 Peter 4:6 actually shows there is an open-ended possibility that the gospel was not preached to people already dead, but that the gospel was preached to people who at the time of Peter’s writing were actually dead, but who were alive when Jesus preached. The “this” of 1 Peter 4:6 refers to the judgment following physical death, and thus the gospel was preached to them when they were still alive, so that they would not experience the judgment to come. Grudem concludes (and I agree with him), “Thus, ‘the dead’ are people who have died and are now dead, even though they were alive and on earth when the gospel was preached to them.” So, what I’m suggesting is there are not clear verses in the Bible which actually claim Jesus descended into hell following his death on the cross.
As Grudem points out, there are 3 verses that more clearly show Jesus did NOT descend to hell.
Luke 23:43: “TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” When Jesus died his soul went to be with God the Father in heaven, and his physical body remained on earth, and was buried in the tomb. I have heard a number of attempts to describe “paradise” as somehow a different place than heaven, Grudem points out that the other 2 places where “Paradise” is used are both clearly referring to heaven– when Paul was caught up in his revelation of heaven in 2 Cor. 12:4, and in Rev. 2:7 which described the “tree of life.” Context is everything! We must understand Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross in light of the rest of Scripture.
John 19:30: Jesus’ rejection and suffering was over when he breathed his last and died on the cross. He was no longer separated from God, as he would be had he gone into hell, but he was reunited with His Father “who art in heaven.”
Luke 23:46: Grudem writes of this verse, “the cry ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46), also suggests that Christ expected (correctly) the immediate end of his suffering and estrangement and the welcoming of his spirit into heaven by God the Father (note Stephen’s similar cry in Acts 7:59).”
So, if Jesus did not descend into hell, “then what did (he) do those three days (he) was dead?” I take it, as Grudem does (which is why I chose an article by Grudem to lead this blog post), that Jesus experienced a death like New Covenant believers also experience. When a New Covenant believer dies, their body remains on earth but their soul immediately goes to be with God in heaven. Therefore, on the original Easter Sunday what happened is that Jesus’ soul was reunited with his physical body when God the Father raised him from the dead. This means that when Jesus did finally ascend to His Father it was a unique ascension in that yes his soul had already been with His Father following his death, but His Father reunited Jesus’ soul with his body when he raised him from the dead, and thus when Jesus ascended into heaven it was the first time his body and soul both went to heaven where Jesus sat down at the right hand of his Father.
And what, then, do I make of the Apostles Creed language that Christ “descended into hell?” I think the Westminster Larger Catechism has understood this issue best. Remember, question 50 of the catechism says “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” And so this all helps us to determine what Jesus did the three days he was dead… Jesus’ soul went to be with God the Father in heaven, and his body remained on earth. He was in heaven for the three days, although there is no time as we know it in heaven, so the concept is difficult to apply to Jesus’ unique situation. Jesus’ soul was with His Father in heaven after His death on the cross, but the Father reunited soul and body at the resurrection when Jesus burst forth from the empty tomb on the first Easter.
If you’d like to read the article from Grudem you may do so here: https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/did-jesus-really-descend-into-hell/